Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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FL High Stakes Testing: The Nitty Gritty

Floridians hear a lot about over-testing and high-stakes testing in our public schools. Even if you are sympathetic to the problem, unless you are very plugged into the details, you have only a general idea of what it all means.

Let me give you some of those details.

Most of my career has been as an art teacher. In the 2009-2010 school year, I switched to a lifelong dream of teaching English for Speakers of other Languages (ESOL).

I very quickly realized that this was going to be very different than my art classes. As part of new initiatives in the Palm Beach County school district, my classes were supposed to be heavily scripted – much like teaching is scripted for the new Common Core-based system.

I was supposed to follow everything exactly as it was posted on the district website, although the lesson creators at the district office were building the plane as they were flying it.

Each week was supposed to focus on one of the four cluster areas on the FCAT – main idea, words and phrases in context, research and reference, and comparison and cause and effect, with a reading test given every Friday.

According to the results on the test, the teacher was supposed to reteach the cluster on Monday if necessary before continuing with the scripted lessons. We also were supposed to have the same “board configuration,” that is, a student-friendly explanation of the day’s lesson on the white board. Each month’s calendar had benchmarks for each week and specific lessons for each day. The idea was that any student could move from one school to another and find the same material being taught on any given day.

In addition to the Friday tests, we had to give the SRI (Scholastic Reading Inventory), a reading fluency test, three times a year. We gave two rounds of diagnostics, one in October and one in January, which were supposed to pinpoint student weaknesses and help teachers correct student deficiencies before the FCAT in the spring.

We also had to give the FAIR test (Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading), which I never completely understood, but which apparently tested oral and reading comprehension. My students were classified as LEP (limited English proficiency) so they had to take the CELLA (Comprehensive English Language Learning Assessment) every year to determine whether they stayed in the sheltered language arts program or were mainstreamed.

I very quickly realized that the scripted lessons were not going to work for me. I had three one-hour classes separated into freshmen, sophomores and juniors (no seniors) and then got them again for two hours after lunch for a reading class. I had a total of 22 students, but a wide range of ability levels and language proficiencies.

I had a young lady who should have been a junior but lied about her grade level so she would be placed in ninth grade. She had just come from Mexico, knew no English and was afraid junior classes would be too hard. In the same class, I had a young man whose reading proficiency was just below his grade level and was ready to be mainstreamed. Another student had a baby and seldom came to class. Another student was severely diabetic and missed a lot of class due to health reasons.

I tried to follow the lessons but the material was too far above my students’ abilities. I eventually began to create my own lessons, trying to follow the benchmarks for each week using adapted ESOL materials. I had the benefit of four computers in the classroom and two different reading programs that I could mix up to keep my students’ interest.

Which brings us to the Friday tests. I was required to test at their grade level, not their ability level. If the reading coach was giving a test to the eleventh-graders, all the eleventh-graders had to take that test. Which made the test a complete waste of time. I could learn nothing about how much my students had learned from my teaching that week because my students were reading on average at a third- or fourth-grade level, even though they were high school students. So I really only taught four days a week and wasted every Friday.

The diagnostics were also a waste of time. They were written at a tenth-grade reading level, so even though the students were given extended time and bilingual dictionaries, they scored very low. The FAIR was also too hard. The SRI was a little bit more useful, but the smart but unmotivated ones quickly learned that if they answered the questions correctly, the program would give them harder and harder ones until they answered a certain number wrong. So if they purposely answered questions wrong, they would be finished sooner and would have time to hang out on the internet waiting for the others to finish.

I enjoyed my year in ESOL and learned a lot, but I jumped at the chance to move back into art when they opened the middle school in Pahokee. I thought I would be able to hide out and do what I love doing – teach, since art was not directly tested on the FCAT and did not directly figure into the school grade. However, due to a 2011 law requiring End of Course exams in all classes, I might be faced with a dilemma. It is not yet certain that the district is going to comply with state law and administer an EOC for art. If it does, I will have to decide if I teach my students how to create and appreciate art or if I teach them how to pass a multiple choice test which supposedly will rate my abilities as an art teacher. Fortunately, I am close enough to retirement that I could stand on my principles, but what about all the mid-career teachers?

Catherine Shore Martinez is a National Board Certified teacher at Pahokee Middle Senior High School in Palm Beach County.

This piece was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

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